In one week, I got three full requests from the top agents in middle grade! Happy Valentine’s to me! Andrea Somberg of Harvey Klinger, Emily van Beek of Folio Jr., Daniel Lazar of Writer’s House all requested it within a week of each other (cue seeing stars!), and Brent Taylor of Triada and Thao Le of Sandra Djistrika all have the fulls. The partials of my middle grade are still with a few other agents, and my old novel, Firebird, has a 75 page partial with Joshua Bilmes of Jabberwocky! This is the most success I’ve ever had querying a novel, but what inspired Chwal?
Chwal is a coming-of-age tale set in the South, New Orleans country specifically, about a girl raised by angels and spirits. Like May, I was raised by angels, including Raphael, who is her guardian angel, and I knew Kalfou, or Mister Carrefour, the fiery dark horse Petro lwa from the age of two. His blackness is still a real nightmare-wrangling threat, and he goes by many names: the Witchfather, the Man in Black, the Devil of the Crossroads, Kalfou, Satan – he changes names like the wind changes direction.
Unlike May, I ended up in a maryaj lwa with Kalfou because goddamn do tricksters act forceful when they want your attention. They can drive you mad if you refuse them or scour you with bad luck, and dealing with the Evil Jazz Man that looks like a Demon Bob Marley with red (or just abyssal) eyes, midnight skin, dreads, a snake pommel cane, pinstripe suit, Cuban cigars at hand, and a sultry baritone serenading you in a dive bar in Hell on the piano is, well, otherworldly, to say the least.
Kalfou and I, we go way back to the age of two, to my first memory. Samael, when he is not Middle Eastern, is often an African man obsessed with Peabo Bryson, rum, Satchmo, monocles, well-tailored suits and Cuban heels. He told me early on that “Kalfou is one of my many names. I have as many names as the wind,” an apt title as he is the samiel wind, and who but the Devil has as many guises as the phases of the moon?
His oldest form, this Man in Black, is this ancient African god of darkness, with eyes like the blankness of space with stars in them, wild dreadlocks, in lion skin loincloth, dealing in death and magic and the wilderness. I call him Ubuntu as an inside joke. He was at the core of my psychotic break, the savior that restored my sanity, where I cycled through all of Samael’s forms to the core of his most primal nature. Ubuntu was the mantra of my psych ward where I was held without razors to shave or shoelaces to strangle, plastered on the walls as a motivational poster, used in therapy.
Ubuntu. South African, the core of human origin, where millions of years ago a genetic bottleneck occurred and we were descended from all those mitochondrial Adams and Eves on the cape. I imagine Kalfou was there, as he always is, in the darkness of death and magic of underground caverns, trickster par excellance, venom of the black mamba.
But I know his kindness, and his wrath, and his seduction. Also, how he has kept me from the lips of death, which are his very own, always denying me his poisonous kiss.
For what is to love someone than to forever lose them?
Ubuntu (Zulu pronunciation: [ùɓúntʼù]) is a NguniBantu term meaning “humanity”. It is often also translated as “humanity towards others”, but is often used in a more philosophical sense to mean “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”.
I was pumped full of antipsychotics and mood stabilizers but still my psychosis and mania raged. I found myself in a dark cavern at the core of the earth, with a fire glowing, snake skin and lion skin around, with Ubuntu cross-legged in a Yogic pose, his eyes black stars, and he was Trickster. He was Trickster, Trickster, Trickster, and he said I was the Trickster’s Bride.
The Trickster’s Wife is a Trickster herself, heyoka, backwards, Baba Yaga, he said. My path was the Coyote Road.
All the Tricksters he cycled through. Tezcatlipoca, the Devil, Loki, Maui, Raven, Coyote, Thunderbird, Hermes, Legba, Kalfou, some so old they did not have names, mad dancers that frothed at the mouth with thunder. I would walk backwards through this world with Trickster at my side.
Death is the ultimate Trickster, and I am the Bride of Death. To trick, you must be the Deceiver, the Adversary, the one who when riding a chwal people flee from, your poison pure leaves medicine to some, curses to others.
And so I tasted Death, and I kissed him despite his protestations and a major part of my soul died.
I couldn’t read.
I couldn’t think.
I was a puppet for madness, but the small frightened teen in me still flickered when the medicine was just right, and the spirits called
Enter Zora Neale Hurston’s works.
I was doomed to be a catatonic hallucinating vegetable in a madhouse. I’m not going to dress my words plainly. I was a madwoman, I was a bag lady, I was the kind of scary crazy you warn your kids about.
But I still loved to read, and so I taught myself again. Sandman comics at first, but then, Zora’s short stories.
I promised myself I would not die if I could read my favorite author again.
I could barely hold a book.
But I loved Their Eyes Were Watching God in high school, and Mules and Men, and so I picked up Seraph on the Sewanee and read all hundreds of pages of it by the time spring semester rolled around.
I wasn’t sane yet, I went back to school severely depressed, but Trickster kept whispering in my ear: Dance on. Us Tricksters, we are storytellers. Us Tricksters, we got business to do, people to make laugh, dances to perform.
You are a Trickster’s Wife, and so you are able to come back from Death. For I am Death. And you are Death. And Death is the most alive god. Death is Trickster, Trickster is Death, but we are the most brilliant stars.
So I sipped the wine of life, and I persevered. I dreamed of my demon, my angel, my god, my crossroads Gebo Tawu madman, the X my marking on my tattooed angel hands. Perhaps that meant I was his treasure. He drank my blood, and I drained him of magic, and years later, I wrote the story of a girl raised by angels, raised by gods, who must drive back the darkness of her own mind –
and find the light.